Two decades after leaving the quintessential crooner’s mould in favor of jazz, Norwegian chanteuse Sharon van Etten is back — and she’s finding a whole new audience in the musical and diplomatic worlds in her home country.
Van Etten’s new album, “Everybody Down,” is out on Beacon Records, an indie label run by an investment group in Norway. It’s a deeply personal collaboration between her and saxophonist/composer Matthew Scott Skelton, a longtime collaborator and friend. The result, it seems, is something of a second coming for the singer.
For her fans — ones who follow her on Twitter and access her videos through her Web site, her tours or her music on Spotify and other services — “Everybody Down” is another vintage Van Etten album. It contains ten songs divided into two halves, “Love Now” and “Babies,” each set to a tempo and sensibility much closer to her 2014 debut, “Tramp,” which was praised by critics as a throwback to classic singer-songwriter music than to something modern, just as “Everybody Down” is.
But the album comes with a new twist: “Everybody Down” features original music from all nine tracks by Skelton, creating a lush, multi-instrumental collaboration between the two artists. As the album gets better — and I listen to it more often, after just a few listens — the differences start to blur. The melodies are consistently strong and original — they crackle with energy, like a painter trying to show off the number of colors in the canvas.
But the sound feels awfully smooth. Everything sounds polished and on the money. Skelton often improvises sparse, mournful solos just when it seems like the song’s groove is about to reach a climax. “Down” ends up being more about arranging and arranging than about the music itself.
Before recording “Everybody Down,” van Etten sent samples of the music to Skelton and suggested he cut all nine songs together into one album. Skelton accepted the idea without initially thinking much about it. But once he dove into the tracks he found they had a common, infectious feel.
“The original songs are perfect for the two halves of the album,” he told me, sitting in a Park Avenue studio near the city’s theater district.
The album features Van Etten in a whole new light: She’s more rock than pop star, yet she still manages to cling to the soft, catch-as-catch-can emotion of her early work. She’s at her most interesting singing about her experiences on tour — having painful conversations with anyone who will listen, or in so many words, trying to find common ground between herself and someone who disagrees with her politically.
“I need to feel something,” she said. “I have to believe that it’s going to help me get through what I’m going through. It needs to help me and not hurt me.”
“Nobody will feel what I feel,” Skelton added, “but I feel.”
Skelton never considered that “Everybody Down” might have been too pop-like for international audiences — and it might not be a conventional album with jazz influence at all. To him, it’s an evocative piece of music made with the utmost seriousness.
But Norway, as Skelton pointed out, already had a burgeoning jazz scene to tend to before he or van Etten even began working together on “Everybody Down.” They drew strength from that international backing.
Skelton’s nephews are big jazz fans — which helped them choose this project as a way to make their debut. They’re now regular listeners, and so is their father, who is Norwegian. And by all accounts, they’re having a ball with the album. Skelton recalled coming home from rehearsals on the Brooklyn Bridge one day and seeing his nephews standing outside Grand Central Station, waiting to get on the train.
“They said, ‘This is what we want to do,’ ” he said. “They are not bashful about it.”